More than 30 years ago psychiatrists tried to "cure" Pete Price of being homosexual. Until now he has remained silent, both about the methods used and the fact that he is gay, but the courtroom discussion has prompted him to share his experiences for the first time.
Price still has nightmares about the three days he spent in a psychiatric ward in a Chester hospital in 1963. The irony is that he volunteered for the therapy, partly, he says, because of the conventions of the time - homosexuality was illegal for those under 21, and a less liberal attitude prevailed than that which exists today, but his decision had more to do with his adoptive mother. "She could never understand it and she was devastated when she found out that I was gay. I just wanted to make her happy, but the only way I could do that was by being what she called 'normal'."
Despite his initial bravado, it is clear that talking about being gay does give him some worries. Pete Price's show on Liverpool's Radio City Gold attracts about 300,000 listeners a night from Sunday to Thursday. The phone-in sections of his programme have given him a close relationship with his audience, whom he calls "The Family". Ten thousand of them are now proud owners of certificates that read "Congratulations - you have been adopted by Pete Price". He long ago decided to keep his sexuality to himself, but his desire to talk about what happened to him outweighs other considerations.
Price began his career as a comedian and has spent the last 28 years on the periphery of showbusiness. He still works the clubs at weekends, but 20 years ago he looked set to join the showbiz glitterati of the comedy world when he won the television talent show New Faces. The bright lights beckoned, but only briefly, and although he is well known around Merseyside and the North-west, wider fame has eluded him. He is aware that cynics may say he is more concerned with jumping on the "gay celeb" bandwagon than with pointing out the dangers of aversion therapy, but the suggestion is dismissed. "I could think of better ways to get publicity than this. All I want to do is say, 'look, aversion therapy is wrong and it's harmful.' People can think what they like of my reasons for doing that."
Price's teenage years were dominated by attempts to resist his feelings, trying to convice himself it was a phase. He started going out with girls, but the carefully constructed image of heterosexual normality was shattered when his mother found one of his letters. "It was from a lad I knew. I was engaged, and he was begging me not to get married. It was silly really, the kind of letter you write when you're young." He recalls the events of that night when his mother confronted him. "She said 'what does this mean?' and I realised I couldn't keep it from her, so I told her as gently as I could. She was sick - physically sick - and told me to get out of the house."
The following morning she begged him to seek help for what she called his "illness". An appointment was made with their GP, who referred him to a psychiatrist. It was the psychiatrist who first mentioned the "cure", and although no mention of what the treatment would entail. Price agreed to try it. "I didn't believe in it - I knew it wouldn't work - but I just wanted to make my Mum happy. The next thing I knew, I was in Deva," he says, shaking his head at the memory.
Deva, the Roman name for Chester, was also the name of the psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of the city. Patients were housed in single storey huts, in bleak, dismal surroundings on the perimeter of the hospital grounds. "They put me in with some real basket cases. There were people running around the ward all night, creeping up and laughing in my ear and running away, jumping all over my bed. I was terrified and couldn't sleep, worrying about what they [the doctors] were going to do to me in the morning."
As he talks, he refers constantly to the news story that prompted him to tell his own tale. He was shocked that there could be any similarities between his treatment more than 30 years ago and that of the naval officer who claims he was subjected to a "prurient and obtrusive" interview about his sexuality. Pete Price knows about such interviews. "Just what are they hoping to achieve?" he asks. "They wanted to know about oral sex and anal sex - but it wasn't clinical like you'd expect from a doctor. It was in really gross terms, making it sound disgusting, something to be ashamed of. I think it was part of the treatment, trying to make me feel ashamed of what I was, and I feel really sorry for anyone who has to go through that."
After his "interrogation", as he refers to it, Price was taken to a white walled room and told to get into bed. The only furniture was a table on which stood another tape recorder and a stack of male erotica magazines. "They told me to look at them, then they asked me what I liked to drink - which at the time was Guinness - and they brought me a bottle. They left me then, so I was sitting there looking at the magazines and drinking, while the tape recording of our conversation from the previous session played. I was wondering how it was supposed to be curing me."
He didn't have long to wait to find out. "Three of them came back in and without saying a word gave me an injection. It happened really quickly, and a few minutes later I threw up. They didn't give me a bucket, so I was sick all over myself and all over the bed." When he recovered he was ordered to continue looking at the magazines and carry on drinking. An hour later they came back. "They gave me another injection and the same thing happened, I was sick everywhere, but they just left me to it." This was repeated throughout the day. Every time the tape finished, it would be rewound and he would hear himself being quizzed about his sex life, while a nurse insisted he drank some more and looked at the magazines and further injections were given.
Michael Forth, consultant psychiatrist at Liverpool University and medical director at West Cheshire NHS Trust, as Deva is now known, confirms that aversion therapy was carried out there. "It was quite widespread in the Sixties because up until 1973 homosexuality was classified as a psychiatric problem." He explains why Price was given alcohol prior to the injections. "It's possible that he was being injected with Antabuse, which reacts with alchohol and causes an unpleasant reaction - nausea. The idea was to link homoerotic stimulation with something unpleasant, because it was thought that this would help the patient revert to straightforward heterosexuality. That was where the whole thing fell down, because they didn't."
Price was left in a locked room for 72 hours with no cleaning facilities. "They wouldn't let me go to the toilet, so you can imagine what it was like. I didn't sleep the whole time I was there. I was in a terrible state, I couldn't even think straight. If I had been able to I might have got out earlier than I did." By the end of the third day, he'd had enough. "I thought. 'I've done nothing wrong and I'm being treated like an animal, left to lie in my own shit and sick,' so I decided I was going. I started worrying about what they were going to do next because one of them had said something like, 'if this doesn't work it's the electric shocks next'. That was enough for me. I told them I wanted to go home."
The staff tried to persuade him to stay, but he was adamant, and phoned to ask a friend to pick him up. "We went back to his house where I got cleaned up, then we went to bed. I think it was my way of telling them where to go, it was my way of finally accepting what I am. Far from curing me, the treatment confirmed more than anything else that I was gay."
His mother was angry that he had left with two days of the course still to run, perhaps feeling that the extra 48 hours might have been enough to cure her son. Price never told her what he had been through. Until now he has only shared his experience with close friends. "I kept it buried all that time because it was just too painful to think about. I don't really care what people think about me, because what this type of therapy did was horrific, and people should be told," he says.Reuse content